Six hours after sitting down to hammer out my next Songwriting Class assignment, my brain is tired, I’m very hungry, and I feel only marginally closer to my goal. I suspect that if someone else were around, I’d discover that I was a bit cranky, too.
I am diligently following processes professor Pat Pattison recommends online and in his book Writing Better Lyrics, optional reading material I am finding quite necessary. There are steps a lyricist can take to discover ideas, word combinations, and effective story telling. For me, some of it straightforward (object writing), some tedious (exploring the thesaurus, identifying rhymes), and some quite difficult (finding an effective angle, avoiding cliches, finding metaphors).
All of this creates great sympathy to my middle school and high school piano and composition students, and it has offered me some opportunity to reflect upon what it takes to learn a new skill.
This week, one of my tasks is to edit the guitar part for Impulso: Concerto for Marimba, Flamenco Guitar, and Dancer, a collaborative project with Chris Burton-Jacome. Chris is a fabulous flamenco guitarist living in Phoenix. Chris, his wife Lena, and my wife Maria will be performing the concerto in St. Louis and in Phoenix in November.
I was finding it time consuming to figure out what notes to write on the staff for the strummed chords until I started noticing patterns. For most barred chords, there seem to be only a handful of voicings that are used. I searched the web for a reference sheet that would show these voicings on a staff, but I didn’t find what I needed. So, I took some time to make up a reference sheet to help me translate what I had originally written for the guitar part into something that was playable.
Several years ago, fellow piano teacher and performer Christina Cuda Robertson took 6 months off of teaching for what she called her sabbatical. During this time, she maintained a tremendously reduced teaching schedule, where students only scheduled lessons every two weeks or so if and only if they had completely prepared everything assigned from the previous lesson.
Within her sabbatical, Christina learned new music, attended workshops, and focussed on personal musical growth. I remember feeling quite envious of her ability to plan ahead for such a valuable experience, and I was quite confident that I would never be able to make room for a personal sabbatical as long as I still had children to feed and educate.
I have been experimenting with ways to give my students a more thorough understanding of functional harmony. The deeper the student’s understanding of harmony , the easier it is to learn and memorize music. Even something as simple as knowing that a V chord usually moves to I can help a student remember what harmony follows, identify new tonal areas, and understand phrase structure.
My newest experiment involves using dice to have students construct viable harmonic motion and then play it on the piano. So far, I’ve just started playing with the concept with my students who have a more advanced understanding of harmony, but I’m excited enough about the possibilities with all my students to write about this now.